Q: Second Life – Why Would You Go There?
A: To be a dancing banana…wearing a Rubik cube skirt (of course).
These Dancing Banana avatar outfits were given to Friday night guests at Muddy’s Music Cafe. Music provided by DJ RayJay Baxton & Hostess Jaide Xue who was on hand with banana wearing wardrobe tips.
Now, what is so special about dancing banana avatars you may ask yourself? Well, I will give you a theory to ponder…I arrived at this theory following three days of attending the SharpBrains Virtual Summit titled ‘Technology for Cognitive Health and Performance’ held back in January (you can see the agenda and list of speakers over on the SharpBrains Summit site). One message we heard repeated at this conference was just how important it is for our brain health to experience both novelty and challenge as we age. In recent years there has been considerable publicity for various brain games and a few fortunes have been made from the electronic versions of such games. The publicity has hinted that these games may prevent mental decline and keep our brains young etc. However, research does not prove that playing these games is quite the easy solution we would like to believe for avoiding diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. The SharpBrains Summit suggested that we need to adopt a similar approach to brain fitness as we have towards cardiac fitness (both are related to each other). Brain fitness tends to reflect our lifestyles i.e. exercise, eating right, social relationships, getting enough sleep plus finding challenging and novel ways of stimulating our aging brains with new learning. I would like to add to this recipe the importance of a sense humor and playful imagination. Now (with a fanfare of virtual trumpets) this is where the banana avatars enter onto the cognitive stage.
As I have mentioned before, I teach Second Life to seniors with the average age of 72 though I often have older students including a sprightly 90 year old. (The 90 yr old told me that she loved to travel and Second Life gave her the opportunity ‘to go traveling’.) I believe Second Life has the capacity to provide layers of ‘brain fitness’ experience. For a start, there is no doubt that it takes time to master the Second Life interface. I heard that IBM considers it takes 90 minutes of training to get its staff up to speed to enter the virtual world for a meeting. I am quite certain that it takes those same IBM staff days before they feel comfortable and confident enough to go gadding round Second Life without assistance. Linden Labs are endeavoring to make the whole user experience easier especially for newcomers. However, the fact that it is tricky to master presents a stimulating mental challenge, and it is the type of challenge that helps with brain fitness. Second Life (inadvertently) provides layers of ‘brain-gaming’ experience because once someone has mastered the basics they can then begin to explore the platform where they will inevitably encounter many puzzling challenges. These challenges are tied to running the technology (their own computers plus the platform) necessary to witness and participate in the vast array of visual sights. Students also find themselves laughing at both themselves and each other as they struggle their way through the surreal landscapes on their computer screens. After all, once a person has mastered how to wear a banana avatar, it is difficult to remain serious as you play this immersive 3D brain game. By the way, if you are reading this post and are unfamiliar with Second Life please be assured that you do not have to turn your avatar into fruits and vegetables to play! The banana avatar epitomizes the brain game perfectly as it provides both novelty and challenge.
Second Life is largely created by its users, and many of these users are remarkably creative individuals who have collectively turned much of the platform into a vivid and highly imaginative space. However, if truth be told, many of these Second Life locations require us to use our problem-solving skills to witness the scenes in their full glory. For instance, when we visit a location such as the wonderful Macbeth Island we must solve various incidental puzzles to follow the play as it unfolds across the island’s moody landscape. Layers of thought are piled into the installation turning it into a cerebral Photoshop of Shakespearean ideas. Hidden triggers are embedded in objects to activate your entrances and exits from the various scenes, books loaded with notecards triggered by virtual touch lie scattered about, each scene draws us further and further into the depths of Macbeth’s disintegrating mind. (See ‘Second Life -Why would you go there?’#4 Foul Whisperings for more information about Macbeth Island. )
As users of Second Life, we become fluent with its interactive pie charts, scripts, and animations, and we are not concerned by the fact that we must often experiment before we can interact with different objects within its 3D spaces. Perhaps there is even a little embarrassment that the world is so complicated to use? Blog post after Second Life blog post speculates upon the potential of the application (for education, training, meetings and socializing, etc.) while also mulling over its complex interface. Well, maybe we are looking at this from the wrong angle? Perhaps figuring out how to move about and participate in this virtual environment is an essential part of the whole experience? Sometimes when I am teaching my classes, I think if I could take an MRI of the room by scanning down from the ceiling, the MRI screen would show our brains lit up like a smoldering forest of little wildfires!